Managers: Make time for time on the plant floor

Feb. 1, 2022
Jeff Shiver says it can be tempting to let the world go by from behind your desk, but you’ll lose trust and engagement.

The place where value is created is often called gemba in lean circles. For most readers, that is the physical plant or shop floor. Too often, engineers, managers, and supervisors become disconnected from the floor, consumed in meetings or behind a computer.

From the Plant Floor

From the Plant Floor is a new monthly column that explores reliability challenges faced by organizations and solutions to overcome them.

As a young engineer, I began my career designing control and electrical systems for manufacturing sites. Little did I realize at the time, but there was so much more to learn and do. The winds of organizational change brought me new management to the engineering group and a new mentor.

Ken, the new controls engineering manager, taught me to look for items in the act of failing and for improvement opportunities. Every few weeks, especially before an owner’s visit, we scoured the plant looking for irregularities. Armed with a yellow legal pad, I dutifully made lists of items in need of repair and general housekeeping items, i.e., roof leaks, stained ceiling times, failing equipment, or missing conduit covers. Often, we included others in the walkdowns. A goal was to ensure the plant was always “tour ready” for visitors. Rather than the typical task focus, we took time to look in all directions, take in unusual sounds and smells, feel equipment, and observe for improvements. In the process, we talked with people, asked questions, and listened.

Initially, the operators and technicians dreaded the walks as it meant more work, cleaning, and fixing things. Over time, the attitudes changed. People became engaged, and equipment reliability improved. They learned to look for potential failures and improvement opportunities. When Ken left to work at other company sites, I continued sharing and learning as I moved to different locations and roles.

Later, our paths would cross again. We both held management roles this time, with Ken as the plant manager. I moved into the maintenance manager, and later, an operations manager role. As people progress up the corporate ladder, the focus shifts from technical skills to more conceptual and human skills. The site was one of the largest company sites, and the people had experienced significant change in recent years. They were frustrated. Given the site size and with direct manager reports, it would have been easy to watch the world go by from behind the desk. Managers proclaim an open office door policy, but relationships with people are not built that way. Building solid relationships was key to overcoming the challenges and getting people engaged. You must meet people on their terms, in their environment, at gemba.

I varied my hours and travel routes in the plant, talking with people, asking questions, and observing to learn more. I might grab a broom on a startup night to help an operator or do a changeover with the packaging team on occasion. Sure, I still had my job’s regular duties to fulfill, but I made time for the plant floor. The people appreciated it. It’s not unlike Taiichi Ohno’s Chalk Circle improvement concept but shortens the time commitment through interactions with people. As I invested in relationships with the people, I earned their trust. Together, we found ways to eliminate defects and improve our ways of working.

I continue the approach today, guiding managers and others to observe and find improvements. After teaching an engineering manager the practice, he shared a discovery just days later. The group had a significant equipment failure. He observed the technicians as they restored the equipment. The technicians brought the wrong size rigging, wrong tools, and parts to respond to the failure. They required multiple trips back and forth to the shop and storeroom to correct the issues. Afterward, they developed a reusable job plan for future planned or unplanned events that significantly shortened the time to restore the equipment.

As a maintenance function, you should be auditing completed work by walking down the jobs. Take three completed work orders once a week to start. Take the equipment operator, technician, planner, supervisor, and storeroom clerk. Verify the ways of working and take time to observe along the route. What other opportunities or potential failures exist? Learn together and build relationships. Use similar approaches for the operations group. Look for windows to consistently do the group walks. Be the change.

This story originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of Plant Services. Subscribe to Plant Services here.

About the Author: Jeff Shiver
Jeff Shiver CMRP is a founder and managing principal at People and Processes, Inc. Jeff guides people to achieve success in maintenance and reliability practices using common sense approaches. Visit or email [email protected].
About the Author

Jeff Shiver | Founder and managing principal at People and Processes, Inc.

Jeff Shiver CMRP is a founder and managing principal at People and Processes, Inc. Jeff guides people to achieve success in maintenance and reliability practices using common sense approaches. Visit or email [email protected].

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